My five favourite reads of 2020

Our incoming Readings Monthly editor Jackie Tang shares five of her favourite books from the past year, including poetry, memoir, essays, short stories and YA!

Forgotten Corners by Pete Hay

Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, ‘How have I never read this author before?’ It’s magical, this feeling of discovery, and you immediately want to share it with those around you. I had this experience with Pete Hay’s Forgotten Corners, which collects almost two decades of the Tasmanian writer’s essays on art, the environment, travel, work, and of course, as he so wonderfully puts it, the Vandemonian spirit. Even as he tackles thorny topics, such as the ethics of writing about place, or the illogicality of work in late capitalism, Hay’s words are an absolute pleasure to read. Down-to-earth, unpretentious and funny, his sentences are smooth and effortless with the occasional quick flick of a poet’s imagination. This is a book you’ll sink down on the couch with and read in a few glorious gulps. I emerged from my own fugue fully convinced that more people needed to know Hay’s work and my poor colleagues have borne the brunt of many insistent ‘Have you read Pete Hay??’ conversation openers as a result. If you love the engaged nature writing of Robert Macfarlane or Helen Macdonald, give yourself the delight of discovering this remarkable writer.

The F Team by Rawah Arja

In a year where so many sports events were postponed, this YA novel, about a group of friends from Western Sydney forced to team up with boys from Cronulla in a school rugby competition, catapulted up my favourites list. Loving, loyal, brash and flawed, Tariq and his Wolf Pack are brought to life by Rawah Arja’s sparkling dialogue - so sharp and dynamic, it could jump straight into a TV adaptation. (What are you waiting for Netflix?) It hits all the beats of the best underdog sports stories, complete with training scenes and climactic matches. It’s also a love song to the ways big, messy, rowdy families ground and support you, and a gentle reminder to be alive to the stoic resilience that underpins so many migrant communities in this country.

Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan

I’ve found myself returning to Elizabeth Tan’s short story collection frequently throughout the year. Partly because of the vivid prose, which you can view in full pyrotechnic display from the very outset. Partly because of the surreal, imaginative near-future scenarios (a balloon apocalypse, a government mandated trauma response program that involves cat-shaped ovens). But mostly it’s because of the way Tan takes esoteric, sometimes imagined, technology and uses it to explode our chaotic ball of human emotions without judgement. In this pandemic year of turning to social media, video games and streaming for connection, this book’s gentle compassion and sly humour were a welcome salve.

Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green

This short, powerful poetry collection by award-winning writer Charmaine Papertalk Green centres on the letters that Papertalk Green’s mother wrote to her in the 1970s, when the author was boarding in a hostel in Perth to attend high school in the city. The radiant warmth of maternal love beats through these pages, both in the original letters, which are extraordinarily moving to read, and in Papertalk Green’s poetic responses, which tackle questions of dispossession, resistance, language, legacy, the power of passing on love and so much more. Throughout the poems, Papertalk Green weaves in Badimaya and Wajarri words as a powerful way of honouring her family and ancestors, as well as resisting and directly challenging the language of colonisation. This is such a short book, but it feels like a monumental work that merges autobiographical history, the ancient past, the present and future all at once. Anyone who has felt the keen poignancy of a parent’s sacrifice will find something to cherish here. If you’re like me and missed Nganajungu Yagu when it was released in 2019, go read this gut-punch of a book; it left me breathless.

The Details by Tegan Bennett Daylight

One of my never-wrong colleagues hooked me on The Details by describing it as a book about how (not what) you read. She was, as always, right. This is a portrait of a life symbiotically linked to books. Tegan Bennett Daylight takes up different catalytic moments of her life – birth and death, childhood and middle age – connecting how her experiences have shaped and been shaped by her reading. The crucial thing that connects them, she argues, is an ability to notice detail, and she has an exacting eye for it. Whether she’s writing about the works of Helen Garner, or the vagaries of the vagina after birth (a must-read), Bennett Daylight repeatedly unearths gems of insight that will cause you to rethink the world around you. She’s the kind of reader you’d want to be in a book club with, someone whose thoughts you could sit with for hours.

Cover image for Smart Ovens for Lonely People

Smart Ovens for Lonely People

Elizabeth Tan

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